Dow Jones numbers are shown on one of the screens at the New York Stock Exchange in New York, US, February 6, 2018 [Brendan Mcdermid/Reuters]
The stock market crash that began in the United States on February 2, Groundhog Day – moved in a wave around the world, and continued, down, up, down, into the following week – was all about class war – the kind once described by Warren Buffett, in which the rich are fighting against the rest of us, and winning.
The analyses and descriptions in the popular and financial media made the crash seem like an abstracted financial matter, all happening in the narrow bandwidth of central bankers, investors, and data points. If, however, we look at what the actions tell and at the unspoken foundations of what was said, a story of Class War becomes utterly clear.
This is what the events announce:
1. The riches of the 1 percent require the economic suppression of the 99 percent.
It’s practically an equation. A gain by the 99 percent = a decline for the 1 percent (or even 0.1 percent or 0.01 percent)
2. Great gains for the top – as manifested in the financial sector – are at odds with the growth of the “real economy”. The latter is defined by the Financial Times Lexicon as “The part of the economy that is concerned with actually producing goods and services, as opposed to the part of the economy that is concerned with buying and selling on the financial markets.”
3. Economists and commentators in the financial press see any gains for normal people as an instant and genuine threat that should be countered, but they can’t see a bubble as big as K2 – so long as it is benefiting the finance sector and the super-rich – until it blows up in their faces.
On Friday, February 2, the Labor Department released its job report. It said, “200,000 jobs were added to the economy … which was stronger than expected, and the unemployment rate stayed at 4.1 percent – the lowest since 2000.” Even better than that, “average hourly wages grew 2.9 percent from a year ago – the largest increase since June 2009.”
The reaction was instant. The same day. Crash.
“Dow plunges 666 points – worst day since Brexit”
“Stocks swoon, sending Dow down 600 points”
“S&P 500, Dow suffer biggest weekly decline in more than 2 years”
The Investor Class saw good news for ordinary people as terrible news.
They didn’t necessarily verbalise it quite that way. But, when voting with their wallets, they made it as clear as can be.
A 2.9 percent improvement in wages averages out as just nine cents an hour. That sounds quite moderate. Especially after a decade and a half of wages stagnating or actually in decline. But Investors reacted with the panic of plantation owners getting news of a slave revolt over in the next county.
Barron’s, the business magazine, asked the obvious question, “Why would wage growth, which is clearly a good thing for workers and the overall economy, be such a bummer for investors?”
Then Barron’s answered: Wage growth could mean inflation is back.
“Once again, this is ‘good news’ for workers, but it hints that wage inflation is taking hold, and that can be ‘bad news’ for the stock market,” said Gorilla Trades market strategist Ken Berman. Larry Hatheway, chief economist at GAM Investments and head of GAM Investment Solutions, called inflation “the biggest risk for markets in 2018”.
The presumption is that the moment that economists at the Federal Reserve see inflation – or even if they think that Punxsutawney Phil – the celebrity groundhog – will come out of his burrow and predict inflation is coming – they will raise rates to “cool off the economy”.
From 2008 until June of 2017, the Federal Funds Rate had been less than 1 percent. At the start of February 2018, it had only gone up to 1.42 percent. Short of an allowance from your parents, that’s as close to free money as you can get. Those nearly free funds are, without doubt, what’s fueled the stock market boom. The theory – based on Milton Friedman’s monetarism – was that a flood of money to the banks, making borrowing very cheap, would nurture growth everywhere. It didn’t. It stayed with the bankers and speculators. While the “real economy” was going through the Great Recession, they had incredible gains.
At the point of Trump’s bragging, the Dow had gone over 26.000 for the first time. In 2009, when the crash hit bottom, the Dow Jones Average was 6,547. That’s an increase of 400 percent. Had the economy quadrupled in that time? No. It hadn’t.
Some might say that it’s wrong to figure things from the lowest point. Some might say that the crash was an abnormality. That we should pick a starting point from more normal times, yet even if we measure from the previous peak, the conclusion is very disturbing. In April 2008, the high point before the crash, the Dow was just short of 13,000. In relation to the very top of the previous bubble, the market of January 2018, had almost exactly doubled.
Had the real economy doubled in that time? No. It hadn’t. Therefore – Double-Bubble! (Did even Paul Krugman note that? No.)
If the “real economy” had not quadrupled or even doubled, how did the stock markets grow that much?
Virtually unlimited funds were made available to those at the very top – the Investor Class. That created a narrow, focused inflation. Too much money in the hands of a select group (the Investor Class) seeking too few goods (Investment vehicles), driving up prices (without any change in the underlying productive values).
That inflation was, and is, totally OK with the financial community, economists, and the federal reserve.
But even a hint of a growth in the real economy, for real people, a bare 9 cents an hour, is bad, evil, scary inflation. It is to be feared and must be instantly slapped-down.
There’s an intellectual superstructure beneath the public dialogue about economics. It is a view that the only objective way to measure economic success or failure is the return on capital. Any other result, like an improvement in living conditions, health, and the well-being of society is subjective, and, as such should be disregarded. Elevating how much money people make from money to not merely a better standard of measure, but to the only standard, turns economics into a weapon of the Class War. It creates the pretence that the process by which eight billionaires have as much money as 3.6 billion other people – half the population of the world – is mechanical, normal, and natural.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.